Class struggle and its obstacles
World Revolution held its 19th Congress in November 2010. One of the responsibilities of any territorial section of the ICC is to discuss the national situation. It has to analyse the economic crisis, the class struggle, and role played by British imperialism on the world stage. The following article is part of the Resolution on the British Situation adopted by the congress, specifically the section concerning the life of the bourgeoisie and the class struggle. The first part, on economic crisis and inter-imperialist rivalries, was published in World Revolution 340.
Globally the material condition of the working class has further deteriorated since the autumn, as many national capitals continue to struggle with the multiple problems of weak growth, rising public deficits, stubbornly high unemployment, particularly amongst the youth, and relatively high inflation. As a result the working class is seeing the erosion of pay as wages lag behind inflation, attacks on pensions and the wider effects of cuts in the social wage as benefits and government services fall under the axe of various austerity programmes. Despite the rising stock markets and soothing words of the bourgeoisie the world economy remains extremely fragile, with the spectre of sovereign defaults continuing to stalk Europe, especially with the bailout of Portugal in April.
Given the terrible situation facing the working class, one might well ask why is the level of class struggle in Britain so low? Why aren’t workers taking to the streets en masse to protest as they have in Greece, France, Spain, Wisconsin etc.? As the Resolution points out, there have been several important industrial disputes in Britain over the past 2 years, but the working class in Britain has to confront a number of historical weights, especially the strength of the trade unions and the legacy of the defeats of key sectors of the class in the 1980s, such as the miners. This has been further reinforced by the bourgeoisie’s ensuing ideological assault on working-class identity and the pressures of decomposition that further undermine social cohesion and a common sense of class solidarity. So, the key point to remember that there is no mechanical link between the depth of the economic crisis and the levels of class struggle and class consciousness.
These difficulties have been illustrated in particular by two key events over the past 6 months. First, the student protests in late 2010, which broke out soon after the resolution was written. This movement was sparked by proposed steep increases in tuition fees for students entering higher education in 2012, and the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance for students in further education - an important weekly benefit of £30 for those students from low income families. While the ‘student body’ itself is not a social class, many young people from working class families have no option but to stay in education for as long as possible to avoid unemployment and to gain skills and qualifications in order to stand a better chance of getting those jobs that are available. Increasingly, even those young people from better off middle-class backgrounds face being proletarianised during and after education, having to work part-time while studying to survive and then joining the labour market where very few full-time jobs with decent conditions and pensions are being created. A report in February from the NIESR found that only 3% of new jobs created were full time since the UK economy came out of recession.
The student movement was thus strongly animated by a proletarian spirit. There was a strong element of spontaneity to many of the protests and demonstrations, which the NUS, Labour Party and leftists had to chase to catch up with. There was a clear sense of solidarity with future generations of students too: many of those protesting wouldn’t be affected by the increases in fees and cuts to benefits but were protesting on behalf – and often with the involvement of – those children still at school. The demands raised were of an economic nature, and the methods used in many of the occupations – mass meetings and debates – expressed a tendency to unity and self-organisation that could have lent itself to wider involvement from the working class, as happened in 2005 in France when students and workers there protested against the reforms to the CPE. In the end the student movement was unable to gather a sufficient momentum to change the coalition government’s decisions and by the spring the relevant legislation had been passed in Parliament. Nevertheless, the lessons and experience gained in the struggle were important for the future as and when the most militant minorities of those involved enter the workforce and participate in the coming struggles.
The second significant event was the national demonstration against cuts organised by the TUC on 26 March in London. The Lib-Con coalition government has been walking a tightrope. On the one hand it hasn’t shied away from planning the scale of cuts it feels is necessary to avoid ‘the market’ losing confidence in their determination to deal with the deficit. On the other it is keenly aware of the response that a brutal, frontal assault on the working class might provoke. In the face of this dilemma the British bourgeoisie has demonstrated its historic intelligence and strength by phasing in the cuts over a much longer term than was originally expected, while relying on the trade unions and leftists to organise ‘anti-cuts’ groups and demonstrations to keep what indignation and resistance there is in safe hands. Thus the 26 March demonstration, while very well attended, was essentially a pointless exercise in ‘marching from A to B’.
Should the lack of an explosive, massive response from the working class in Britain to the deepening economic crisis be a cause for concern? While the development of the class struggle here has lacked the spectacular expressions seen in other countries, such as France and Greece, there is no doubt that the crisis will continue to deepen and the material condition of the working class will continue to deteriorate. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw much higher levels of class struggle in Britain, but one of their weaknesses was the insufficient politicisation of the struggles, especially in the form of the emergence of a politicised minority whose class consciousness had been raised through struggle and reflection on the wider historic dimension of the class movement. While the ICC and other organisations of the communist left were products of this era, these forces were incomparably weak and isolated compared to the demands of the historic situation. The emergence over recent years of a new generation of people concerned with the need to discuss and clarify is thus historically significant. In Britain we are seeing the emergence of widespread political discussion outside of the confines of the capitalist left, through internet forums and small discussion groups, as well as efforts of these minorities to coordinate their participation in the class struggle. These efforts face many weaknesses but they are a sign that future workers' struggles in the UK will be able to develop much more rapidly in an openly political direction.
Resolution on the British Situation from the 19th Congress of World Revolution (part 2)
Life of the bourgeoisie
1. The bourgeoisie remains the dominant class and there is no likelihood of this being challenged in the short term. However, it increasingly finds difficulty in keeping control over the functioning of society at all levels and has to work harder to maintain both its material and ideological domination.
2. The economic crisis poses the most immediate threat to the bourgeoisie because it can neither control not understand it. The worsening of the crisis increases the risk of divisions emerging both between and within the national bourgeoisie about the most effective approach. While the first response to the open crisis of 2007-9 showed that the bourgeoisie still remembers the lessons of the 1930s, once the immediate threat had been contained differences began to emerge. One area of difference is between Europe, where most countries adopted austerity measures to reduce their deficits, and the US where the emphasis remained on using debt. In part this reflects the different positions of these countries where the US is most able to sustain a policy based on debt because the continuing position of the dollar as the global reference currency allows it to increase debt by printing more money. A second area of difference is between the debtor and creditor countries, essentially that is between the US and China where friction over China’s policy of keeping its currency low in order to promote exports has been long-standing but is likely to increase, particularly if the US seeks to use manufacturing to help climb out of recession. More widely, there is an increased risk of countries engaging in competitive devaluations to favour their exports, which is one step on the road towards protectionism. Within the British bourgeoisie there is little evidence of real division at present. Those differences that are reported over what to cut, when to cut and how far to cut are part of the strategy to keep questioning within the framework of capitalism.
3. Divisions over imperialist strategy have played a significant role in the life of the British bourgeoisie over the last two decades. They undermined the dying days of the Conservative government in the mid-1990s and were one of the reasons for putting New Labour into power. They reappeared over Blair’s turn towards the US after 2001, were expressed in public through some of the inquiries into the Iraq war and ultimately resulted in Blair being forced from office early. In recent years the dominant part of the bourgeoisie has sought to reassert the independent line it favours and to develop this in the light of the current situation. If the pressure put on Blair was the most dramatic, developments within the Tory party were no less significant. While both Cameron and Foreign Secretary Hague have previously made strong Euro-sceptic comments, their more recent policy statements have stressed the need to take a more independent line from America and to develop links within Europe. This last has been most strikingly shown in the treaties signed with France in late 2010. The reception given to this by parts of the Tory party show that the Eurosceptic faction remains but also that it has been subdued for at least the time being. At the moment a certain level of unity has been restored in the British ruling class; however, the difficulties facing British imperialism as it attempts to develop a new strategy mean that there is a real possibility of divisions reappearing with renewed force in the future.
A key issue for the bourgeoisie in the recent election was its ability to get the workers to accept the massive attacks that every faction of the ruling class knew were unavoidable. The immediate task was to draw the electorate in to give democratic credibility to the attacks to come. Key moments in this were the debates between the party leaders and the rise of the Liberal Democrats that were used to inject some drama into the campaign. This was successful in slightly increasing the turnout compared with recent elections, although it did not reverse the long-term decline. Following the election the drama continued with the talks to form the first coalition since the Second World War. The coalition has given a strong boost to the ideological strategy of working together in the national interest, which is the main method currently being used to get the working class to accept the cuts. It has also helped to reduce the distrust of the Tories that still remains after the experience of Thatcher. The Liberal Democrats have continued to provide cover while the attacks are introduced. The Labour Party has played its part in this strategy with the new leader Ed Milliband limiting the argument to points of detail about the extent and timing of cuts while promising to support the government when it is in the national interest. While it is not clear that the result of the election was what was wanted by the bourgeoisie, it has certainly been effective in using the situation to its advantage, as the high rates of support for the government show.
The main challenge for the ruling class in managing the working class is to get it to accept the attacks rather than resist them. There are a number of strands to this strategy, the principal one being that referred to above of working together in the national interest, while another is that of ‘fairness’. At the same time it has also sought to introduce the attacks gradually, targeting one or two sections of the working class at a time and taking care to prepare the ground by presenting these sections as privileged or lazy and so not working in the national interest. It has also decided to offer some protection to services such as health and education that large parts of the population use and value. Further ahead, the bourgeoisie is ready to target particular groups, who are identified as being outside or against the ‘national interest’. It is also preparing for a more direct challenge from the working class by positioning the unions as the protectors of the working class and focusing on the violence and ‘inconvenience’ of the recent actions in Greece and France.
4. At the international level the working class is responding to the deepening of the crisis by gradually engaging in struggle with the ruling class. At present this remains at a low level overall, although there are important differences between the situation in the developed economies and the emerging and underdeveloped ones. In the latter the exploitation is more brutal while in the former it is more hidden and limited to some extent by the historical power of the working class. In a minority of struggles workers have sought to control the strike themselves, to spread it to other workers and show class solidarity. This challenge to the unions tends to be implicit and spontaneous rather than considered in advance but, nonetheless, it creates the basis for a development of consciousness with the potential to take the struggle to a qualitatively new level.
5. In Britain, the objective situation of the working class has become more difficult over time with a permanent level of hidden unemployment and growing numbers of workers in temporary or part time work with the resulting low levels of pay. Outside work the proletariat is confronted with all the pressures arising from a social system in decline, including crime, drug abuse and violence. At the subjective level the working class has to deal with the consequences of the objective situation, such as unemployment and poverty. It is recognised, for example, that losing a job can lead to mental health problems. Secondly, it has to deal with the ideological offensive launched by the ruling class described above. Thirdly it is also marked by the weight of its own history and, in the present period by the continuing legacy of the miners' strike in particular. Before the strike the British working class was frequently at the forefront of the waves of class struggle that marked the late 1960s, the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s; afterwards it fell back sharply and has remained at historically low levels ever since. The bourgeoisie prepared thoroughly for the strike, stockpiling large quantities of coal and acted ruthlessly to crush it, not only to break the militancy of the miners, who were at the vanguard of the class struggle in Britain throughout that period, but also to teach the working class a lesson it would not forget. The strike had a high level of support within the working class so the defeat was felt all the more widely and deeply. The failure of the struggle also had international repercussions as the British miners were seen throughout the world as the most militant sector of the working class in Britain; and it was followed a few years later by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the reflux in the class struggle that this ‘victory of capitalism’ produced. This reinforced the defeat. The material legacy of the strike still exists in many former mining towns and the ideological legacy weighs on the working class in Britain to this day
6. This situation does not mean that the working class has not responded to the crisis. Three distinct responses can be identified: capitulation, survival and struggle. In the first, part of the working class is overwhelmed by its situation and falls into a lumpen mass where it may resort to crime, preying on other members of the class, or it may become lost in drugs and alcohol or become fodder for racist and other extremist groups. There are many variations in the individual route taken but they are all marked by the absence of a sense of being part of a class defined by the qualities of solidarity and collective struggle.
The second response, of survival, is that currently taken by the majority of the working class. This is expressed in the willingness to accept wage freezes, increases in the rate of exploitation and reduced hours in order to keep a job. It is driven, as always in the history of the working class, by fear of unemployment and poverty. The policies of the coalition reinforce this by holding out the prospect of reducing benefits below the level at which it is possible to survive, while its ideological offensive vilifies those cast aside by capitalism. With the worsening of the objective situation this response becomes harder to sustain and pushes more and more of the working class towards either capitulation or struggle. The atomisation and war of each against all that underpins capitalism favours the former; the position of the working class, whereby the individual can only struggle against their exploitation by participating in the collective struggle against all exploitation, favours the latter.
7. At present only a minority of the working class has taken the path of struggle. At the quantitative level the number of workers involved in strike action and the days lost as a result have both fallen since the start of the recession and are close to the lowest levels recorded. However, behind these figures there have been some important struggles marked by solidarity, workers taking the initiative and challenging the dead hand of union control. The most significant of these were the two strikes of construction workers in January and June 2009. These strikes were controlled through mass meetings and efforts were made to extend them to other workers. They also saw a struggle within the working class against the weight of bourgeois ideology expressed in the nationalist slogans that especially marked the start of the first strike. Towards the end of the first and during the second strike the nationalist dynamic was openly challenged and solidarity with workers from other countries working in the UK was seen. Moreover, these strikes both succeeded in winning their immediate aims. Other significant actions were the occupations of the Visteon and Vestas plants in the face of redundancies where objectively, despite their subjective acceptance of the role of the unions they were led to challenge that role, at least briefly. This illustrates an important point about this period: in order to struggle effectively the situation requires workers to take matters into their own hands. The objective necessity to go beyond the union framework based on the acceptance of capitalism if struggles are to have any chance of success means at times that the objective action of the working class goes ahead of its subjective understanding, which creates the possibility of a sudden development of consciousness appearing as if from nowhere.
8. The state does not sit idly by while this happens however and in the latter part of 2009 and throughout 2010 the unions have reasserted their control. The strikes that have taken place during this period have tended to end in acceptance of the bosses' terms and conditions despite the militancy of the workers involved. The BA strike and postal strikes were of particular significance. In both actions workers showed great determination and militancy; in the former this was in the face of threats and victimisation by management. However in neither strike did the workers challenge the control of the unions. In the BA strike the union led workers through legal hoops and ballots while the postal workers' union dissipated the workers' energy in dispersed rolling strikes and on/off negotiations
9. In Britain as elsewhere the objective conditions for the development of the class struggle have developed over the last two years and it is probable they will continue to do so during the two years ahead. However the pace in Britain has been slower than elsewhere thanks in part to the efforts of the bourgeoisie to control the economic crisis. This situation may begin to change as the cuts take affect, but it should be noted that the bourgeoisie is still trying to target one or two groups of workers rather than the class as a whole in order to pursue the strategy of divide and rule that has long been its watchword. The subjective conditions will also continue to hold back the development of the struggle until greater parts of the working class begins to gain confidence in itself and in the possibility of getting rid of capitalism and replacing it with something better. Here the example of action in other countries can have a significant impact, which is why the bourgeoisie always has and always will continue to seek to impose a blackout on such news or to distort its message.